Wayne Rooney’s reaction said it all – a smile barely cracked let alone a celebration of the fist-pumping, arm wheeling, euphoric kind 3,000 traveling Reds had hoped for. After all, Rooney’s 87th minute free-kick was excellence in everything aside from it’s timing. Four goals to the bad, United’s dream lay in tatters long before the 27-year-old curled home a second set piece in as many games.
Such was the comprehensive nature of defeat to rivals Manchester City on Sunday that it remains hard to draw positives from the occasion. The converse is closer to the truth, with the heart of David Moyes’ strategy fundamentally undermined at the Etihad.
After all, these are the games that define a season’s narrative. Defeat leaves the Scot facing testing questions of his defence, attack and especially midfield, together with an approach that was altogether, and disastrously, conservative.
Few of Moyes’ men left the Etihad with dignity, let alone credit, upheld. From the slipshod nature of United’s defending, through yet another midfield over-run by an opponent, to a chronic lack of creativity that is now becoming a pattern.
This was a wretched United performance, every bit as demoralising as that inflicted in 1989; far worse than the freak 6-1 defeat at Old Trafford two year’s ago.
Sunday leaves United with just seven points from five Premier League matches. Five games in which the Reds have lost two local derbies, and amassed the lowest points total for a decade after the opening quintet of league games. Should Moyes’ team suffer defeat to Liverpool in the Carling Cup on Wednesday the pressure on the Scot will ratchet up significantly.
Perhaps the most disappointing factor in Sunday’s loss is that none of Moyes’ side appeared to take responsibility, on the pitch at least, for the calamitous events. To a man insipid.
It really comes to something when want-a-way Wayne Rooney leads the mea culpas.
“It’s nice to score but it means nothing,” said Rooney, perhaps the only United player to emerge with any self-respect from Sunday’s disaster.
“The points were the most important thing today and we’ve come away with none. We’ve all grown up with local football derbies and it’s not nice when you lose one. I’ve been there myself as a fan and as a player. Thankfully we’ve got the game against Liverpool coming up Wednesday and it’s something we are looking forward to now in the hope that we can get the victory to put this defeat to the back of our minds.”
That is a task far easier to articulate than practice of course, although Moyes will be relieved with a fixture list that includes winnable league matches against West Bromwich Albion, Sunderland, Southampton, and Stoke City before October is out.
The Reds should end that run with a far better points tally. Any other outcome is unthinkable.
But Sunday’s chastening must surely prompt a rethink in United’s strategy, not least in the back four where Rio Ferdinand and Nemanja Vidić were over-powered by City’s vibrant attacking unit. For the first time this season the pair looked its age and more. With Patrice Evra also advancing into his 30s, Moyes has deployed three veterans in his back four in each of United’s matches this season.
Here too the will seemingly drained from those in Red. United’s rearguard was given such little protection that Vidić’s attempt to berate Antonio Valencia for failing to track his runner had the air of resigned apathy.
On the other flank Ashley Young’s contempt for defending was matched only by a chronic fear of ball-retention that bordered on the obsessive so often did the former Aston Villa winger concede possession.
Meanwhile, Michael Carrick and Marouanne Fellaini were reduced to hapless spectators, with City utterly superior in central midfield.
Fellaini was billed in some quarters as United’s answer to City’s Yaya Touré; on this evidence the Reds might have better recruited Kolo such was the Belgian’s ineffectiveness.
He remains a puzzle. The £27 million man who neither adds bite to the defensive side of United’s midfield, nor breaks up play through superior positioning. Nor, it seems, does he offer a counter-part to Carrick’s passivity on these occasions.
Aggressive at set-pieces, and effective around the box, Fellaini still has much to prove at this level. Not least in a deep-lying role where the Belgian’s limited defensive instincts were exposed in two of City’s four goals.
Indeed, Moyes’ decision to push Fellaini forward as the game drew to a close may be the forebear of an approach to come, with United seeking to exploit the Belgian’s power in the air, rather than his ineffectual ability on the ball. Look away those who hope to match rivals’ short-passing game.
Elsewhere, United’s creative fizz popped, as it has in four of six games in all competitions this season. After all, those two Rooney free-kicks and a Robin van Persie penalty are all United has to show for matches against Chelsea, Liverpool and City this season.
Meanwhile, two of Moyes’ most creative options in Shinji Kagawa and Nani sat on the bench. Unused, perhaps unloved, while new signing Wilfried Zaha and wonderkid Adnan Januzaj watched on from the stands. It is enough to prompt the question of just what hold Young – the most wretched of all – retains over his new manager.
It is a conservative approach that can only frustrate, but one a decade-long in the making during Moyes’ time at Everton. Even the Scot’s lone substitution – Tom Cleverley – was designed to limit damage inflicted rather than restore any squandered pride.
Still, with Liverpool at Old Trafford on Wednesday there is little time for a radical rethink in approach, although there was much talk in the aftermath of “a response”. It is already a hackneyed sentiment.
Talk is cheap, unlike United’s one summer acquisition, and in the end Moyes was reduced to limp platitudes in praise of the traveling support.
“Whether it’s a derby or somebody else, you don’t want to lose,” admitted Moyes.
“It does make it worse when you want to do so well for your supporters. I thought our supporters were great today, under the circumstances. Whatever manager loses a game, you get on and try to win the next game. You just play the next game and see how you go. We’ll do everything we can to win the next one.”
The Scot has little choice but to field a full-strength side against Brendan Rogers’ outfit; defeat escalating United’s slow start to a full-blown crisis, at least in the more hyperbolic red-tops.
Whether that line-up includes those largely repudiated this season will define the coming weeks.